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'The Shallows': Has The Internet Rewired Your Brain?

Nicholas Carr wants you to know he's not a Luddite. The former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review and author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, Carr has been, and still is, very much taken with technology, going all the way back to the first Apple home computers. Social networking, blogging -- he's embraced it. Devices such as Wi-Fi-equipped DVD players that allow people to stream music, movies and YouTube videos through their entertainment systems … well, "I have to confess: It's cool," he writes. "I'm not sure I could live without it."

Yet Carr wants us to know what we're losing in exchange for our dynamic, interconnected, Internet-fueled world. The Shallows is a rebuttal to those who unquestioningly accept a life in which information is unlimited, easily accessed but fractured and unmoored from context, and where people are constantly online and multitasking among e-mail, Facebook and websites. Extrapolating from the sagacity of Western philosophers like Plato and Marshall McLuhan and guided by recent, pertinent discoveries in neuroscience, Carr argues that the Internet physically "rewires" our brain to where we end up acting like computers -- avaricious gobblers of information –- and our grip on what it means to be human slackens.

A large part of what it means to be human, he writes, is our capacity for "deep reading," an ability bestowed on us by Gutenberg's printing press, which fostered an "intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration." (It's a testament to Carr's seriousness and thoughtfulness that he spends half his book providing a crisp, fascinating history of the written word, all to carefully show how the Internet is but "the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind." In other words, he has taken pains to ensure The Shallows is far from being a half-baked screed.)

Deep reading, which requires "sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object," has for ages allowed people to make "their own associations, draw their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas." The Internet works against this, Carr writes. "Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning." Sure, deep reading is possible, but that's not the kind of reading "the technology encourages and rewards."

With The Shallows, Carr attempts to snap us out of the hypnotic pull of our iPhones, laptops and desktops. He reveals why we're suddenly having a hard time focusing at length on any given thing, and why we compulsively check our e-mail accounts and Twitter feeds and never seem to be able to get our work done. (It's because we've been abusing our brains.) He wants us to value wisdom over knowledge, and to use new technology intelligently. "We shouldn't allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we've numbed an essential part of our self," Carr pleads. It remains to be seen if he's shouted down or listened to.

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Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.